Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the new surgeon general, said Thursday it would be "absolutely wrong" for Congress to deny women insurance coverage for abortions as part of the Clinton health plan.
The decision to get an abortion "should be at the discretion of a woman, her doctor and her God," Elders said."I do not feel any policymaker knows enough . . . or good enough to make that decision for somebody else," she said.
"I would hope that our policymakers would not be so narrow-minded as to deny a complete range of reproductive health services in our health-care reform plan for all women," she said.
If lawmakers bar coverage for abortions, women should "make sure they never forgot" who was responsible, the former Arkansas health commissioner told health reporters at a breakfast.
Elders, who weathered stiff opposition from conservatives to win confirmation last month, said she intends to use her highly visible post to crusade for preventive health measures, against unplanned pregnancies and poverty, and for comprehensive health education in the schools.
President Clinton has said that abortions would be among the "pregnancy-related services" covered under the basic benefits package he wants to guarantee for all Americans.
He contends that most people with private insurance now have coverage for abortions, and he doesn't want to change that. He would allow exceptions for Catholic hospitals and others that oppose abortion on grounds of conscience.
But conservatives in Congress, Catholic bishops and anti-abortion groups are vowing to fight to strip abortion coverage from the benefit package. At the very least, they want states to decide whether health plans within their borders would cover abortion. Just last week, the Senate voted 59-40 to keep the so-called Hyde amendment that bars using federal funds to pay for abortions for poor women in most circumstances.
Elders, a pediatric endocrinologist, said, "I'm not about abortion. I've never been about abortion. I have been about preventing unplanned pregnancy."